Sunday, December 23, 2018

The Mental Training Reboot Series: Why Do So Many High Performance Athletes Meditate?

A few years back I wrote a series on mental training & the brain science behind endurance sports for a now-departed multisport news website. Time for a reboot! Edited & updated for 2018. Enjoy.
“We all meditate. When I first went to an actual meditation class… the same feeling that you have when you want to stop in a race, when you think you’re going to quit at the end of an interval or whatever, that – to me – that feeling, I recognized when I was sitting trying to stay still and continuously come back to breathing.” – Simon Whitfield
The tasks put before you while training can be daunting. Never mind the crap that probably goes on in your head in a race. I don’t care whether you’re amateur, elite, mid-pack; you’re going to the well at some point – your brain hits the panic button and you slow down (good old central governor), or you’ve just built up too much cognitive fatigue, and quitting time seems really nice right about now. It’s a familiar feeling if you’ve been in endurance sports for any amount of time, and that “wanting to stop” may often be more mental than physical.
There are a lot of reasons to meditate. It’s good for sleep, stress, cardiovascular health, your immune system, decreasing pain perception, enhancing attention and focus – do a quick lit search and you’ll pull up a growing body of peer-reviewed studies (just please don’t try to meditate your cancer away. Modern medicine also exists for a reason.) So…why is it so hard for most of us to actually do? Do we really not have 5-10 minutes to sit and breathe per day?
Reason #1: It’s hard. Or maybe you tried it, and it was not fun. No #$%@ it’s not fun – you’re voluntarily skipping to the point in your workout where your brain wants to tap out. While sitting still. It’s a mental struggle that most of us are uncomfortable with.
Then why do so many high-performing athletes meditate – for another means of self-torture while chasing a dream? Marginal health gains? Because the self-flagellation of an FTP test isn’t enough? Sure, maybe, but probably more what Simon Whitfield was getting at – better control over one’s brain, particularly the point at which it says “stop”.
From a science standpoint, what we’ve mostly known up until now is that meditation seems to help with athletic performance, but not really why. Our new theory? It improves your ability to detect “body prediction errors” – the difference between what you expect to feel and how you actually feel. And, in the context of exercise, your brain uses these body prediction errors (expected exertion – actual exertion) to adjust your physical output– so it makes sense that minimizing body prediction errors leads to more optimal performance.

Enter Interoception –

It’s a fancy word for being attuned to the physical state of your body – and when you’re effectively processing body-relevant signals, you can learn to use them to choose a plan of action. This is critical for athletes for an obvious reason:
Detect disturbance in physical state ⇒ take action to fix it
You know what is really good for enhancing interoception?


Particularly mindfulness, which involves the practice of open, receptive awareness and attention to internal and external sensations as they arise – often done by focusing on the sensations of breathing. A region of your brain called the anterior insula is one of the primary areas affected by mindfulness training. For example, previous research has shown reduced insula activity in response to emotional and physiological stressors and an association between decreased insula activity and greater resilience after mindfulness training.
The right anterior insula is also largely responsible for interoception – and for computing body prediction errors. There’s some cool evidence from a study of elite adventure racers in which researchers had subjects perform a continuous cognitive task while under a variety of inspiratory breathing loads – an “interoceptive stressor”. Relative to the regular subjects, the elite racers performed better on the task while under an aversive breathing load, plus showed less of a right insula response during and after the experience. Interestingly, a study of mindfulness training showed the same thing – decreased right insula activity during an aversive loaded inspiratory breathing experience; both studies also show greater insula activity in athletes/meditators during anticipation of the load. This supports the theory that elite athletes’ brains may be better at interoceptive processing – similar to the effects seen with mindfulness training.
So…can we use mindfulness meditation to alter the brains of elite athletes to make them even better at interoception? A recent study attempted to answer that question, and early results are encouraging – elite BMX riders show functional brain changes consistent with the above patterns; after a 7 week mindfulness training program, their insula activity was enhanced during the anticipation phase and after the inspiratory breathing load task, consistent with athletes’ self-reported increased interoceptive awareness. So, if we wanted to make the case for a brain marker of performance under stress, the anterior insula is it – and we can potentially enhance its performance (and perhaps, then, our body’s) by meditating.

Considering meditation now? Here’s the good news. It gets better.

Your brain adapts functionally, and your perception of the experience changes.
When you think about mindfulness compared to something like transcendental meditation, yes, mindfulness is hard and often not fun at first. It requires focus and attention while also trying to not be focused, but not trying because it’s supposed to be effortless, and then yelling at yourself for thinking about what’s for dinner every 5 seconds instead of attending to your breath, and then yelling at yourself for yelling at yourself because you’re supposed to be non-judgmentally practicing open awareness and just bringing your attention back to your breath/internal sensation of choice.
At least that’s sometimes what happens when I meditate.
So it’s no wonder that this actually stresses people out more initially – when you look at the brains of novice mindfulness meditators vs experienced mindfulness meditators, their brain circuitry for “focused attention” actually activates way more. But then all the hard work pays off. For the experienced guys who have spent hours & hours training mindfulness, it does become effortless, so much so that their resting brain activity actually starts looking a lot like the focused meditative state. A mindful brain becomes their baseline.
Will a resting-state mindful brain result in race-day magic? We still don’t quite know. But here’s the take-away: by affecting brain regions associated with interoception, it may allow you to be more acutely aware of signals from your body – which can only help.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

The Mental Training Reboot Series: Wiring Your Brain for Resilience

A few years back I wrote a series on mental training & the brain science behind endurance sports for a now-departed multisport news website. Time for a reboot! Edited & updated for 2018. Enjoy.
We hear a lot about resilience in the endurance sports world – it’s practically built into the job title; to endure, one must be resilient. In psychology speak, resilience is simply your capacity to respond to adversity – to take bad circumstances and move beyond them, or perhaps even grow as a result of a failure/accident/spot of bad luck.
It’s not the ability to walk through life unscathed – we’re all human, and $#^& happens. You crash your bike. Something crashes into you while you’re on your bike. You’re chased by a moose while you’re on your bike. You get the idea – in endurance sports, there are plenty of opportunities for adversity. Particularly while on a bicycle.
Cue dramatic music…it’s all about the journey, right? How many times do we hear athletes talk about their “journey”? I’m pretty sure it’s right up there with all the “journeys” you hear referenced during an episode of The Bachelor.
But anyways, how you react to the stressors during your journey is a factor of how resilient you are as a human being and as an athlete. Do you bounce back? How quickly and effectively? And, are there mental training practices that can help you bounce like a kangaroo instead of 5 cases of expired Clif bars?
Yes. Yes there are.

Wiring Your Brain for Resilience

Here’s why it works: When you work on the mental skills that build resilience, you activate a specific set of regions in your brain. At first, maybe these neurons aren’t used to talking to each other, so the connections between them are weaker – they’re speaking through two paper cups tied together with a piece of string instead of the latest iPhone. So how do we train a neural circuit to make it more efficient? In short, the more frequently those neurons are firing, the stronger the neural pathway between them will become – neurons that fire together, wire together.
The key here is repetitionEvery time you’re practicing those resilience-building thoughts and behaviors, you’re forcing that circuit to fire, until eventually it becomes automatic – and so do those thoughts and actions.
What brain regions are involved in this circuit? A few cool studies can point us toward the brain areas that may be important. In a study of fire-fighters, subjects heard either a stressful or relaxing script being read while they were in an fMRI scanner. The more resilient they were, the more activity they had in the right amygdala, insula, and left orbitofrontal cortex when they listened to the stressful stimulus. These are regions involved in emotion regulation and interoception (awareness of your physical state) – suggesting that more resilient folks may be better able to call up the appropriate brain circuitry for emotion regulation when they need it.
In a second study, resilient Special Forces soldiers completed a monetary reward-anticipation task (exactly what it sounds like – you play a game where you think you’re getting money! Then you do or don’t get a lot of money.) Compared to (less resilient) civilians, the soldiers showed less of a difference in brain activity in 2 regions– the nucleus accumbens and subgenual prefrontal cortex – between high-reward and no-reward conditions.
So, there also seem to be differences in how more resilient people respond to reward (and presumably, failure). Makes sense, right? If your brain has less of a reaction to not receiving a reward it was expecting, you’re going to psychologically experience that as “getting over it faster.”

How do I make my brain work more like a Special Forces soldier or Firefighter’s brain, so that I can get past my bad race/injury/moose chase sooner?

1. Train your response to anxiety, fear, and self-doubt. 

You can do this by acknowledging these feeling when they arise, and then simultaneously calling up a positive feeling, gratitude, calm, & happiness. In other words, go to your happy place. By doing this repeatedly, you wire a positive emotion into a circuit that was previously bringing up distress and helplessness.
This process of rehearsal and reconsolidation is a key part of how your brain encodes memories, and it occurs in a network of regions distributed across your frontal cortex and hippocampus. This technique works well for athletes who maybe having problems performing following a bad race, slump, or injury.
When negative memories – your bike crash, the marathon you tanked – come to mind, hold on to that memory for a few minutes while you also bring in a positive experience – that race where you excelled, and all the great feelings that came with it. Essentially, you’re rewiring bad to good.

2. Build Optimism and Focus on Strengths.

Corny but true. Remind yourself of what you’re great at. (For the stereotypical triathlete, this shouldn’t be that hard.) If you need an objective reminder of this and/or love taking self-assessment tests online, go fill out the Signature Strengths Questionnaire. Remembering the good things that are a fundamental part of you helps you separate feelings that arise from a failure from your overall identity.

3. De-Catastrophize.

Minimize catastrophic thinking by first identifying that “worst-case scenario” you’re afraid of when something goes wrong. Then, think about the actual probability of that worst possible outcome playing out. Consider a broader range of possible outcomes, including the best-case scenario. The simple process of thinking about a great outcome can engender positive emotions and thoughts, and behaviors tend to stem from those thoughts. Finally, think about what the most likely scenario is.
And to hammer things home one last time: repeat, repeat, repeat. Force those happy neurons to talk to each other over and over, until they’re as tightly coupled together as peanut butter & pickles (it's a thing, trust me.) Then when the day comes that you need to drag yourself kicking/screaming/crying out of whatever hole you’ve fallen into, you’ll have one nice big resilient brain circuit there making it that much easier. It’s ok to wallow and hide for a bit, but you don’t want to be the dude that goes down and stays down.
The ability to harness techniques such as these is what can separate the resilient athletes who bounce back from setbacks from the less resilient, whose careers sometimes never recover from a slump. It’s all in your head – literally.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Roadrunner Rocks, 2018 - Muenster, Texas

A random weekend off in mid-November led to my third trip back to 4R Ranch & Vineyards in Muenster, Texas (the first for Red River Riot in 2017, and the second time for the 2017 edition of Roadrunner Rocks). If you ever find yourself in Texas Hill Country, this place is a must-stop. The drive in takes you through the town of Muenster, past which windmills start to dot the landscape and gravel roads abound. Seated at the top of some of that hard-pack, fast-rolling gravel is a barn housing the 4R Winery tasting room, from which Spinistry's annual fall ride and race starts.

Photo courtesy Spinistry
The morning was chilly with temps in the 40s, but sunny skies soon warmed us up. The boy and I both rode the 70 mile course...a nice walk (roll?) in the park with events like 24 Hours of Cumming (me), Spotted Horse Ultra (me), and the Race Across Texas (him) under our belts in the past several months. The "off-season" has been filled with work & teaching (as always, while I count down the last year and a half of residency), so it was nice to be back riding outside for the day.
Photo courtesy Jami Clayman
Like we've come to expect from Spinistry events, the setup & organization were impeccable, while retaining a no-frills GTFO-and-ride-your-bike gravel . As gravel continues to grow and attract those who want "swag", pros, and $$, it's nice to see Spinistry retain some middle ground between excess & grassroot minimalism.

View from the winery. Photo courtesy Spinistry.
Camping was available free with registration the night before and after - work didn't allow for that this year, but I can attest that there's great on-site camping! And the showers now have hot water 😂 No polar bear club this year!

Lauf Bikes were also available to demo (and ride for the entire race, if you wished). None small enough for me, but I heard nothing but rave reviews, and I got smoked by at least one person on a Lauf.
As for the actual ride: the start and finish of every race I've done out of 4R Ranch is the same. I have a love/hate relationship with it, and at least you always know what you're in for. Heading out is doubletrack-ish, often with a bunch of loose chunky stuff, made trickier by navigating between and around riders of different speeds. Entering the ranch? Up a steep, winding hill. But at least that's the only thing standing in between you and wine and barbecue by that point.

The always-appreciated wine flight at the end. I took home another bottle of Gravel Grinder Wine, too!
Photo courtesy Spinistry

Friday, November 2, 2018

The Spotted Horse Gravel Ultra 2018, Summarized in 9 Life Lessons: an Adrienne Taren production.

Cross-posted on Gravel Cyclist

The most appropriate way to start talking about this year's (and my first) Spotted Horse Gravel Ultra is perhaps by talking about the aftermath. In the retelling and out-loud processing of all the cold, the mud, the rain, the hills, the several sets of plastic grocery bags attached to appendages, the most common question in response is: Why? Why did you do this? (undertone: what's wrong with you?)

Depending on my mood, there are a few different ways I answer the "why":
(a) Because some of the best Type 2 Fun I've had in the past year has been on a bike in Iowa.
(b) Because Sarah Cooper is responsible for Spotted Horse's existence & direction, and she's a badass.
(c) I have a monkey that lives in my garage that I've trained to throw darts at the race calendar, and that's how I decide what events to go to.

Now that that's out of the way, I have distilled what amounted to 16+ hours of Types 1 through 3 but mostly #2 Fun into nine handy-dandy take-home points for those contemplating any sort of gravel ultra, but especially the Iowa type.

Gravel lesson #007: If you're going to camp before a race, make sure it's in a thunderstorm on the RD's front lawn with a bunch of strangers.
On Friday evening, I found myself driving north from Oklahoma up through Kansas, Missouri, and finally Iowa. I'm sure it wasn't actually this abrupt, but at the time it seemed that the second I hit the Iowa border, the rain-pocalypse broke loose. Also the temperature dropped 20-some degrees. These are good signs, right?

It was fortunately still light and non-thunderstormy enough to see a sign informing me that I was in the "Covered Bridge Capital" of Iowa. For a New Englander in (happy, voluntary) exile, this was very exciting, although in retrospect I was embarrassingly slow to make the connection between The Bridges of Madison County and the fact that I was in Madison County, Iowa.

Back to bicycles. After the appropriate amount of swearing at iPhone Maps, I found Cooper's house (appropriately off a gravel road), where she was graciously allowing racers to camp on the extensive front lawn. I bonded with the handful of other crazy people there over bicycles and whether or not we were going to die in a thunderstorm overnight and whether or not I should really move my tent away from the tree it was directly under given the thunderstorms. It was quite pleasant, and I would happily almost be flooded out of my tent with these people again.

Gravel lesson #17: Never be prepared, as this will guarantee that you make new friends.

I set my alarm for a little before 4am, and was awoken around then anyway by the creep of water onto my sleeping pad. I was frankly impressed that that was all there was. Tiny REI one person tent, we've had a nice run. The important point here was that it was still raining. Did I mention the rain? This is important, because the rain is my excuse for what happened subsequently.

I changed into all the gear I had with me, which did not include a lot of things I wished I had (boots, warm cap), but did include a magical GoreTex rain jacket, threw myself in the car, and drove to the start of the race at the Madison County Winery. There I executed a series of acrobatics within my car trying to get stuff attached to my bike, which was not already attached to my bike because doing so last night would've meant standing in the rain/cold for a while getting bike in/out of car and getting everything wet, which sounded like not-fun at the time. Additionally, I was still trying to find and figure out my light situation, since my Dynamo was in the shop and I had a large black shoe box containing miscellaneous lights from a friend. Some of which would actually attach to my bars, and some of which I discovered would not. I then promptly lost the Garmin that I had just been holding. Another ten minutes and a lot of swearing later and I'd dug the Garmin out from under a car seat. I jogged my rolling disaster down the hill towards the start, and stood there for another 20 minutes after everyone else had rolled off putting my Garmin mount which it turned out was on sideways on straight, trying to figure out which light of the two in my hands attached with which light mount, and shoving cables in feed bags.

I did, however, make a few great volunteer and winery friends who attempted to assist in the course of this muddled disaster. Cheers.

Another volunteer kindly led me out of the winery down the pavement in his truck, and I made the turn onto gravel.

*musical interlude: alllll byyyy myyseeeeelf..."*

It was actually kind of nice and peaceful in the dark on gravel alone. I really did not give one whit by this point that I had dug myself a bit of a time hole. I really just wanted to ride my bike. I saw an owl in the road and made owl noises at it. It flew away. As the first hour went by and the sun started to come up, I began to roll by people here and there. The rain lightened. We were certainly damp and dirty and chilled, but rolling. I had surgical gloves on my hands inside Pogie Lites, and my hands were functional. Hands and feet are my kryptonite. Late-morning, cresting a hill, there were a couple of volunteers roadside with Fireball and Reese's cups. Perfectly normal to have a friendly stranger stick a Reese's inside your mouth for you because your hands are too filthy, by the way.

The first checkpoint was just a few miles further, in the town of Orient. I picked up my sparkly silver pipe cleaner (proof that you hit the checkpoint) and joined a healthy group of riders in the C-store, drinking coffee and hot chocolate to warm up. My Garmin had switched into low battery mode, and I set about hooking it up to my external battery. Except upon inspection of bags, I had no cable.

Gravel lesson #333: For maximal difficulty, leave your Garmin charge cable on top of your car. Also don't bring any sort of real cue sheet holder. 

This will give you oodles of time to occupy your mind with a game called "where can I put these cue sheets such that I can access them relatively easily, preferably while still moving, and also not have them blow away in the wind and rain?"

In rank order (best to worst), here is the answer to that question:
1. Leg of bib shorts
2. Stuffed down top of jacket
3. Sports bra
4. Wet jersey pocket under rain coat
5. Teeth
6. Ditch
7. Top tube bag (obscures food, entirely unacceptable, food is great)

And that was how the miles between Orient and the B-roads went.

Gravel lesson #39: There is a fine line between "bike that will give me the best shot at riding through the mud-pocalypse" and "bike that will be very difficult to carry if can't ride through the mud-pocalypse."

This is it, kids. All those elementary school years of playing "stuck in the mud" were preparing you for this moment.

For the record, the RD had changed the course to route us around the vast majority of the B roads in the original course (as well as one water crossing that had changed to rapids), but there were a few miles that she could not get around, and we were forewarned.

I knew I was there when I rolled up to an intersection. Before I even saw the stretch of mud ahead of me, I saw a muddy gentleman poking at a very, very muddy bike with a stick.

"Is that a fat bike?" I said.
"It was a fat bike," he said.

And that is how I decided to not try and ride my Salsa Cutthroat down that road.

Gravel lesson #48: Take the hot chocolate. There's probably more B road ahead.

Congratulations, you've made it through the last 2 or 3 or 17 miles of hiking ankle deep mud, you're shaking with cold, there's a smiley volunteer with hot chocolate and a gallon of water to wash your bike off with at the bottom of the hill, and you're informed that there are no more B roads until checkpoint 2!


Most likely you will ride away happy-shivering, crest the next hill, and promptly hit hike-a-bike mud again. You will swear a little bit at that smiley lady under your breath but also not really, because it was damn good hot chocolate. Also your bike is a mess again.

Gravel lesson #54:  Plastic bags, butter toffee, and a shot of Fireball will solve approximately 30 miles worth of problems. After that you better pray for a Casey's.

So, I survived the 3-4 miles of B road hike-a-bike. We won't even talk about how long that took. Cold and wet is my nemesis, and I was cold and wet. Mostly cold from extensive time spent standing and de-mudding bike. Moving again was helping some. A light rain continued on-and-off. I had some yellow Gore shoe covers on over my Giros, and although they had admittedly seen better days even before the prior few hours of mud and rock-wading, I was getting ready to declare them DOA at checkpoint 2.

And thank god for checkpoint 2, which was up a hill at mile 84, and manned by a slew of cheering volunteers in a couple of trucks and minivans. At this point I had no idea where I was in the field, or who and how many people were still riding, but it was apparently not many. I collected my gold sparkly checkpoint 2 pipe cleaner, which went on my bars next to the (now muddy, like everything else) silver one. I was still shaking, and sat in someone's truck for a few minutes drinking coffee (neutral support warmth, for the record), contemplating my life decisions, as one does.

I like puzzles. Cold and wet riding is a puzzle I've been trying to solve. So I had a mini-funeral for my shoe covers (which were no longer even covering my toes, and had an inch of mud under them) and tied plastic grocery bags over my shoes instead (yes, I know they work better inside your shoes, and I'd have liked to see you try to get my shoes off with a pound of clay encasing each BOA). I got an extra Garmin charger cable from someone. Another dude pulling the plug handed me his extra Hammer drink mix. With the hours of hiking taking me down to about a 9-10mph average thus far, I dropped myself down to the 150 mile race from the 200, as I was informed nearly everyone ahead of me had done. And I had a big glug of Fireball because why not.

30ish miles to the next Casey's...even through rain and dirt-smudged glasses, Iowa was pretty. With the hills and valleys, there were some amazing views and early fall foliage, none of which I took pictures of because (a) my hands were clinging to marginal circulation and (b) rainy picture-taking while bicycling is not my forte. So you'll just have to imagine it. Come to Iowa!

The highlight of this 30 mile stretch was entering the tiny town of Hopeville, which appeared to be one street dominated by a church, just as evening services were either starting or finishing. Either way, a ton of very bewildered Hopevillians kindly cleared the way for the small wet woman on a death-rattling mud-covered bicycle with grocery bags flapping on her feet barreling towards them. I got the feeling that this did not happen to them every day.

And then, just as it got dark, Casey's appeared like a beacon of light and everything that is good and holy about gravel cycling.

Gravel lesson #67: Find a friend for the dark.

Murray, Iowa, Casey's General Store, 7pm. Shout out to the two volunteers who were hanging out there, and actually managed to recognize me (under all of the mud) from 24 Hours of Cumming. We're all BFFs now, which definitely doesn't have anything to do with the fact that they had no-bake cookies, of which I ate 6.

I sat and fiddled with my Garmin, now attached to battery, until it promised to actually navigate for me. Thank god. I acquired Casey's hot chocolate/coffee rocket fuel, put on a fresh stylish pair of shoe-grocery-bags, and purchased a pair of mechanic's gloves to put over my surgical gloves, which I promptly forgot on the table next to the cookies. Whoops.

My current location at Casey's was 30 miles from the end, and I was getting there come hell or high water. Both of which we'd arguably been going through for 13+ hours already, but whatever. I blasted my chain and cassette with C-store car engine oil and spray stuff, spun the cranks, the death rattle stops, and I think "VICTORY IS MINE!!!," because I've lost all of my marbles by now.

I had one marble left, apparently, because I remembered that riding into the night is better with a friend, and I have a new friend in Cory, who has been defrosting and bicycle-repairing at Casey's alongside me. So we left Casey's together and rode for the next few hours in the dark, talking about bike things. I'll repeat: find a friend for the dark. It probably got weird because things usually do at night and after being on a bike for that long. I do remember asking him how mad he'd be if he got impaled by a deer 5 miles from the finish after 15 hours of riding.

Gravel lesson #132: It's perfectly acceptable to be a 30-something professional sleeping in the back of your car, provided you ride your bike for 16+ hours first.
The finish line - some lights and a truck at the end of the last gravel road - materialized in front of us at long last, and un-smushed by deer, we were greeted by Sarah Cooper & Steve Fuller. Sarah said "You look tired." I believe I then asked if I could lie down in the road right there and roll the rest of the way back to the winery. I believe that idea was vetoed.

Underneath the tired there was an extraordinary amount of happy. Because I felt empty, and sometimes you really just need to empty yourself out, and it feels like reincarnation. Because I troubleshot my way through the cold & wet puzzle. Because I got to ride my bike all day and some of the night, and I needed that, too. Because we rode from the finish back up to the Madison County Winery, and were greeted by a bunch of screaming cheering crazy people whom we only met 16 hours ago but who've been rooting for us all day. Because there was a food truck and a hot shower and dry clothes and lots of sitting at the winery and swapping stories afterwards. Because because because.

Gravel lesson #99000: When you send your mechanic BFF a series of text messages the next morning detailing your adventures, ending with the part where you may have used car engine cleaning/lubricant things on your drivetrain*, he will say:

*For future reference, end verdict was that Casey's automotive cleaning products are better than having what was later called "Iowa concrete WTF is this even" fossilize in your drivetrain.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Bikepacking the Katy Trail, Part 3: Day 3, Tebbets to Pleasant Hills

Day 3: 170 miles

Weather: 36 - 48 degrees F according to Garmin, cross/headwind 10-15mph

On me: SOAS short sleeve jersey under Search and State merino long sleeve, Patagonia MicroPuff while warming up in the early morning, Rothera flannel cap, alternated mittens/Handup gloves, Gore leg warmers, wool socks in Lake 303 boots.

Things I ate: Kind bar, handful of gummi bears, one Justin's PB packet, Casey's coffee/hot chocolate x2, Snickers peanut butter crispers x2, Clif nut butter bars x2, Nature Valley granola x1, one bag of potato chips, one bag of beef jerky, and whatever else I found in my car that appeared to be remotely edible on the way home.

The ride: So, I made the questionable decision to ride all 170 miles back to my starting point on day 3. Partly out of masochism, partly because it was supposed to storm again the following day. I crawled out of my sleeping bag inside the Turner trail shelter at 0500 and had the bike packed up and out the door by 5:30. It was dark and quiet. And cold, in the high 30s. I bumped slowly down the trail in the dark into a bit of a headwind. The sun started to come up after an hour, and pace and spirits both picked up some. I was relying on one granola bar and the rest of my emergency gummy bear supply to get through the first 80 miles, where there would be a C-store off-route in New Franklin. There may not have been any open cafes or coffee shops in any of the towns en route until that point, but several of the trail head restrooms were heated, and I *may* have dragged my bike inside with me a couple times in the early morning hours to add/remove clothing layers and defrost my fingers.

In New Franklin, I turned right off the trailhead onto a road that looked like it led into town, straight up a hill. At the top of that hill was the promised red land of a Casey's General Store, where the people again looked at me like I was crazy. Totally out of calories by this point, I grabbed 2 bags of potato chips (one of which was consumed on the spot), 2 chocolate bars, and a handful of Clif bars. Also coffee. All the hot coffee. It was 11am, later than I wanted after a bunch of stops along the way to pack away clothing layers (it was high 40s and sunny now). But with under 100 miles to go, and now fueled by chips, chocolate, and caffeine, legs felt ready for the rest of the haul home.

After New Franklin I crossed the Missouri River back into Boonville, and continued along the trail. Somewhere along this section I passed these Halloween-themed cycling skeletons (above), where a few folks headed in the opposite direction had stopped to take pictures. Couldn't pass up the opportunity, and three very kind French touring cyclists snapped a photo for me and then insisted we take a group photo as well 😄

I stopped to photograph a few of the bridges and tunnels (of which there were many) that I had passed over and through while East-bound the day prior. Boonville to Green Ridge passed uneventfully, just pedaling and ticking off miles. Gradual up, gradual down, no real hills but no coasting either, just constant steady work. In Green Ridge, 10 miles from Windsor (from where I had started the previous day), I veered off for my second and last C-store stop. Hot chocolate/coffee and some emergency chocolate for the road. Quick mental calculation that I would have 1-2 hours of riding in the dark.
Tunnel. Cooler than bridge.
When I got back on the bike after the Green Ridge Casey's, my left knee complained. I told it to shut up. That was relatively ineffective. I rarely get left knee problems, and think it was likely because of cleat placement on my winter boots. Kinda just threw those cleats on without as much meticulous measuring as usually goes into cleats. Note to self, don't do that.

I was making forward progress and eating chocolate, though, so couldn't complain too much. It eventually settled down to a tolerable level. In Windsor, I stopped and made sure that I was turning back onto the Rock Island Spur trail in the *right* direction this time. It was around 5pm and I calculated 50 miles to go. A few towns and, per my memory of 2 days ago, a lot of nothing along the way. It was nice to see this section of trail not in the pouring rain this go-round, even though it was much the same as the rest of the Katy trail 😂

The sun started to set. It was fine. I needed my light (borrowed battery pack-powered headlight from a friend, with the Dynamo in the shop still) earlier than anticipated, with the trees creating a trail-canopy making it darker than if I had been out on a normal open road. Trail things go bump in the night, although the only thing I ever actually caught sight of was a small family of raccoons. 

10 miles to go. Headlight dies. Stop and pull out backup, a trusty purchase that puts out about 150 lumens but lasts forever. The temp had dropped again with the sun firmly down, and I stopped to put a jacket on. A few more mile markers and I was rolling out into a parking lot in Pleasant Hills, MO. Somewhere within a few miles is my car. I didn't trust myself to navigate there from memory at this point, and finding myself back in the land of Verizon reception, let the iPhone take me there. 

I capped off my journey appropriately by bumping over the railroad tracks and catapulting said iPhone from my top tube bag, and then tipping over on my bike while retrieving it. All not 100 feet from the car. 

400 miles, two and a half days of riding. ✔

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Bikepacking the Katy Trail, Part 2: Day 2, Windsor to Tebbets

Day 2: 128 miles

Weather: mid-40s to mid-50s F, overcast, dry.

On me: Search and State merino wool long sleeve jersey, SOAS bib shorts, regular weight Handup Gloves, Lake 303 boots and lightweight wool socks.

Things I ate: 1x Justin's almond butter packet and a chocolate java Huppy bar. One lara bar, 2x some sort of protein bars obtained at Casey's, 1x Casey's coffee/hot chocolate. Chewy cinnamon bears from Sprouts that have been living in my top tube bag for far too long. 2x Wild Mesquite Huppy bars. 2 cups decaf coffee and one order of shrimp tostados. 2x Kind bars and a Hammer recovery drink mix.

The ride: So. Picking up where we left off. Most things are dry-ish, except for my boots. It's more than livable, though. I set out around 0830, and ran into a Casey's for a coffee/Hershey's bar breakfast of champions about 9 miles in, and grab an extra few protein bars while I'm there. It's cool and misty outside, but the rain is done for the week.

The trail is once again quiet. Trees on either side, occasionally an interesting skyline, bridge, pasture. Scattered tiny towns along the way. I hit Sedalia, and there's a trail re-route on pavement for about 5 or 6 miles - navigating briefly is actually a welcome brake from the railtrail monotony, and it takes me past some pretty farmland (and a taco stand). A handful of miles later, I stop at the Clifton City trail head, where there's not much other than a restroom and map, and am stowing my jacket in my seat bag when two older gentlemen roll up from the westbound direction. One is from Maryland and the other Colorado, and they tell me they meet up once a year "somewhere in the middle" for a cycling trip together. They tell me about the Turner house in Tebbets, about 130 miles down the trail from where I've started, which is a hostel-style house open to riders. It sounds like as good a destination for the day as any, so that's now where I'm headed.

I hit Booneville 50 miles into the day, where I'm later told my two separate people there's a fantastic hotel called the Frederick. With jet tubs. Note to self.

Passing through Boonville, the trail winds through town and across a bridge, taking you to the Northern side of the Missouri River for the first time. Crossing the Missouri is kind of neat, but also windy. I was too busy blowing around on a loaded down bike on a bridge high above the river to take any actual pictures here, but shortly after the river crossing is the New Franklin to Rocheport stretch of trail, featuring plenty of big open fields and rock formations.

I keep expecting to see another Casey's or any sort of convenience store, and go off the trail to circle through Rocheport, where there are a few small cafes but not much in the way of resupply options. So on I go. The trail runs right along the Missouri River now, and the banks are near over-flowing, but the trail is surprisingly pretty dry.  

Hartsburg is the next big dot on the trail map I've picked up. I've been warned there are no food options in Tebbets, so I stop there. Two B&B's, a single cafe/wine bar, no C stores, and everything else is closed. Many businesses along the Katy are seasonal and/or open limited hours, so if you're riding after 2pm and not during the summer, be prepared for not a lot. I gave up and blew some money on fancy shrimp tostados in Hartsburg, as they were only serving appetizers. They were super nice and made me hot coffee and let me plug my Garmin and phone in while I waited. It was a pretty little town, and the B&B's there looked like they'd be a nice stopover if one was touring the Katy trail.

I left Hartsburg in the early evening with about 20 miles to Tebbets and a good hour of daylight left. There was only one other town in between, North Jefferson. As I pulled into the North Jefferson trail head, I noticed a couple I had passed earlier in the day. They turned out to be avid bikepacker/off-road rider-types from Alaska, en route to a wedding in St. Louis. We admired each other's color-explosion gravel bikes, and rode the last 12 miles to Turner trail shelter together.

It was dark when we arrived at the Turner trail shelter, and dark again when I left the next morning, so thanks to Google maps for this shot:

All the necessities can be found here: restroom, coffee maker, handful of bunks, plenty of space to haul your bike and camping gear in, heat/AC. It was a nice place to crash for the night and interact with a handful of other cyclists from all over the country. I was more than happy to pay $6 for a warm place to curl up for the night.

Next up: Bikepacking the Katy Trail, Day 3...

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Bikepacking the Katy Trail, Part 1: Setup & Rock Island Spur

TL;DR: After a day spent cleaning the mud out of my my bike after the Spotted Horse Gravel Ultra, I hit the Katy trail in Missouri for a few days of bikepacking. The original plan was to ITT a 550 mile route in Kansas, but Iowa/Kansas/Oklahoma were hit by huge storms and tornadoes. The Katy trail was just far east enough to not be completely underwater, so away I went. I went right around 400 miles in 2.5 days, bike/equipment/ride are detailed below.

Bike Setup

Frame bag (Rogue Panda): 4 battery packs (generator hub in the shop), 3 headlights (see: generator hub in the shop), headlamp, charging cables, iPhone charger, dry bag with second pair of socks/hand warmers, mittens. Side pocket with map, small bottle of chain lube, spare AAA batteries, Dynaplug, spork, pepper spray, pocket knife.
Front roll: Nemo GoGo bivy in Sea to Summit dry bag, under a Wanderlust pinon pack holding additional snacks, toothbrush/toothpaste/contacts, sunscreen, and whatever else I couldn't find room for elsewhere every morning.
Seat pack: tools/spare tubes, Otto lock, sleeping pad, Enlightened Equipment Revelation quilt, Patagonia puffy coat, running shorts, Gore rain coat.
Top tube bag: chock full of Huppy bars, Lara bars, Justin's almond butter, and emergency gummi bears.

Day 1: 70ish miles

Weather: 60s-low 70s and intermittently misting -> pouring.

On me: SOAS short sleeve jersey and bib shorts, Gore ShakeDry rain jacket, Rothera hat, Lake 303 boots, lightweight socks.

Things I ate: 2x Lara bars and a pack of cashews. Sword ginger-citrus drink mix.

The ride: I found my way to Pleasant Hills, Missouri, a small town wherein lies the western end of the Rock Island Spur branch of the Katy Trail. A quick call to the very friendly local police department confirmed that I could leave my car in the town square and they would keep an eye on it. I rode a few miles around town and then hit the trail head. The Rock Island Spur branch meets up with the main Katy trail in the town of Windsor, about a 50 mile trip from Pleasant Hills.

There were a few areas of trail with standing water, all below the level of my bottom bracket, but enough to get bike & legs just slightly dirty [insert shoulder shrug. Still drier than anywhere else in the entire mid-west-south this particular week.] The Katy trail is entirely hardpack, occasionally with some pea gravel - the recent storms had, however, deprived the trees of plenty of leaves and small branches. It was like fall had exploded on the ground. What was left on the tree-lined sides of the trail was still a nice spring-green. I passed the trail heads for Medford, Chilhowee, and Leeton without seeing a single other person. It was quiet and peaceful with intermittent rain showers.

At the town of Windsor, 50 miles into my day, the Rock Island Spur branch intersects the main Katy trail. Windsor was the first stop where there were any actual businesses visible from the trail head, and I considered stopping at the Casey's C-store. It was 5pm, and raining again. Glancing at the map on the trail head signpost, it was only another 18 or so miles to Sedalia, and I figured I could easily make it there before dark. It looked to be a bigger town with multiple motels...despite hauling bivy/pad/quilt etc, I was already contemplating finding a cheap place to dry off tonight. Sleeping in the rain is fine. Sleeping in the rain when you're already wet and the temp is supposed to drop to the 30s was sounding less appealing.

So I start to haul down the Katy trail past Windsor, and 5 miles later figure out I'm headed in the wrong direction, as the mile markers are going up and not down. It will surprise exactly zero people who know me that I managed to get lost on a relatively straight trail. Whatevs, still plenty of time. A few miles past Windsor in the *correct* direction, thunder starts to rumble and a torrential downpour begins. Seriously, within 10 minutes there's what feels like an inch of water inside my winter cycling boots. Back to Windsor I go. The fine people in Casey's direct me towards the town's one motel. I ride through town up a big hill to get there, and there's a phone number to call if you want to check in, as the office is unstaffed.

No problem. Pull out cell phone. No reception. (the next few days will be mainly the same...the Katy trail area is apparently a Verizon black hole.)

Back down the hill I go, to a Sonic restaurant. The staff there are surprisingly unphased by a dripping wet woman on a 50lb packed bike asking to use a phone. They even offer to drive me back up the hill. Small towns are nice. For the record, I rode back up the hill, it was probably a whole quarter of a mile.

Windsor's motel is surprisingly nice, on par with most commercial low-end hotels. I attempt to lay out my wet stuff to dry, which is literally everything. Calculate that there's pretty much no way I'm not going to be cold and damp tomorrow. About an hour later the motel manager knocks on the door, says two other soaking wet guys just showed up, and he's throwing everyone's stuff in the dryer. Resist the urge to hug him. Dry things. Hooray.

I wipe the silty muck off my drive train and stuff some newspaper into my boots, after evacuating a small river of water from inside each of them. Eat a few granola bars and some peanut butter because there's no way I'm going back out in the rain again for food. Decide not to set an alarm, because I don't know where or how far I'm going anyway, which is kind of nice for a change.

Sorry, bicycle.

Everything is wet. I have mud on my face.

...Next up: Bikepacking the Katy Trail, Days 2 & 3

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Copper Breaks, TX: Bikes & Red Dirt & Wild Pigs, Oh My!

A last-minute decision had us in the car this past weeknd with our Salsa Cutthroats & camping equipmentm headed to Copper Breaks State Park in Quanah, Texas. I've had Copper Breaks on the North Texas wish list and it's a somewhat closer trip than Palo Duro and Caprock Canyons (also on the to-do list). Also, I've made it this far in life without ever actually seeing a canyon.

We pulled into Copper Breaks State Park in the early afternoon. Our campsite had a beautiful view of the gorge. We set up our tent and my hammock and went out for a 40 mile early-evening spin.

We chose to follow the RAT (Race Across Texas) gravel route from West to East for a bit. After 2 pavement miles out of the park, we hopped immediately onto some mostly hard-pack red dirt, intermixed with white sand softened by the recent rain.

Blue sunny skies and temps in the low 90s gave way after a few hours to a setting sun and a South wind that dropped the temp 10 degrees.

An old pump station.
General store from times past.

Small cactus farm?
We rolled back toward Copper Breaks as the sun was setting, and captured some great red dirt photos just down Star Valley Road.

I made quick work of a chocolate java Huppy Bar and some celiac-friendly Good-To-Go camp food. We had clear skies and an excellent view of the Milky Way for the evening. For a camera phone, this is a pretty impressive shot of the night sky (credit: Scott Drevicky).

The next morning we rolled out in the opposite direction along the RAT route, heading west. This segment takes you out of Copper Breaks State Park and up into the town of Quanah, before heading in the direction of the red roads and Caprock Canyons. Skies were overcast and the brief period of rain was a welcome relief from the heat.

As we looped back around to Quanah, we saw a large blob in the distance. As we approached, we realized it was a large wild pig. I was quite excited. The last (and only other) time I saw wild pigs, a tiny family of them ran in front of me during a race near Jacksboro, Texas. This piggy was flying solo and could probably cause some damage! It ran off before we got too close.

Back at Copper Breaks State Park, we packed up bikes and camp gear after taking advantage of the showers. Back to reality all too soon.

Photos: Scott Drevicky